Chef Gary’s Tips for a Stress-Free Thanksgiving

This year’s holiday celebrations may look quite different than they have in the past, and the thought of what to do and exactly how to do it is probably more stressful than ever before. There’s no denying that we’d all like to be with family and friends and have the opportunity to reconnect and bring some normalcy back to our lives. But we here at the YMCA of Central Florida want everyone to have safe and healthy holidays, so we encourage you to consider a few ways to modify your plans to keep your friends, family, and our entire community safe this season.

Virtual Celebration

The safest option—not just for high-risk individuals—is to host a virtual celebration. Over the last few months, platforms like FaceTime, Google Hangouts, Facebook Rooms, and Zoom have become extremely popular! You can plan a menu that is easy for everyone to prepare on their own, and enjoy the company of your family and friends while eating together.

Here’s a simple menu idea that you could share with your loved ones and make together:

  1. A roasted turkey breast and gravy.
  2. Classic stuffing or dressing.
  3. Mashed or sweet potatoes.
  4. Your favorite dessert.

Looking for something different? Try our Couscous with Butternut Squash, Apples, and Cranberries or our Pumpkin and Goat Cheese Risotto.

Think of some fun ideas for dinner conversation that everyone can participate in like:

  • If you were a season what season would you be?
  • If you could be any animal in the world what would you be and why?
  • Play a game of 20 questions! Have one person think of a fun family memory and have the others ask up to 20 questions to figure out what the memory is.

While it might not be the personal touch you’re hoping for, it’s still an opportunity to spend quality time with each other!

In-person Gatherings

If you are going to move ahead and have an in-person gathering, keep your group small and intimate. Luckily for those of us living here in Florida, the weather is usually nice enough to sit outside. This would allow everyone to remain safely distanced from each other.

The CDC also listed numerous ways in which you can have a small gathering for the holidays while remaining safer. Some examples are:

  • Wear a mask while preparing food for or serving food to others who don’t live in your household.
  • Limit people going in and out of the areas where food is being prepared or handled, such as in the kitchen or around the grill, if possible.
  • Have one person who is wearing a mask serve all the food so that multiple people are not handling the serving utensils, or have single-use options for things like plates, utensils, and condiments.
  • Make sure everyone washes their hands with soap and water for 20 seconds before and after preparing, serving, and eating.
  • Offer no-touch trash cans for guests to easily throw away food items.
  • Wash dishes in the dishwasher or with hot, soapy water immediately following the gathering.

Find more information on healthy holiday gatherings from the CDC.

Now Let’s Get Cooking…

When it comes to Thanksgiving dinner, knowing what you can make ahead and what needs to be made day-of can be a big challenge… and quite overwhelming! Here are some ideas that will help you to reduce some of that stress so you can focus on what matters most on Thanksgiving—cherishing family and friends.

In the week leading up to Thanksgiving, create your menu. Decide if you are going to make everything from scratch or buy some pre-made items for ease and convenience. And be sure to check out our Thanksgiving Slow Cooker Side Dishes blog for some delicious ideas to make your holiday planning easier!

Under normal circumstances, you might’ve asked for help with cooking from family or friends. This year, though, we suggest that for in-person gatherings, people bring their own side dish(es) and dessert for their family. The same goes with serving utensils. This act can help lower the risk of touching shared surfaces.


First, determine how much time your turkey will need to cook. You’ll do the actual cooking on Thursday, but take a few minutes to prepare using the table and information below.The general rule of thumb is 20 minutes per pound at 350º. Times are approximate, as all ovens vary slightly in temperature. To ensure your bird is fully cooked, use a meat thermometer to check the temperature. If you are using a frozen turkey make sure to start defrosting it a few days in advance so that its ready when you are.

  1. Use some paper towels and dry the turkey. If you plan to season it, now is the time. This will give the seasoning time to meld and will add a ton of flavor to the turkey. Place the turkey on a large baking sheet in the refrigerator uncovered. This will help to dry out the skin and give you a really crispy and beautiful skin when its roasted.
  2. Next, make the cornbread for the cornbread stuffing. Cover, and let sit at room temperature.
  3. Chop up all your onions and celery for the stuffing, place in a zip-lock bag, and refrigerate.
  4. Then, make your cranberry sauce. Place it in your serving dish, cover, and refrigerate. This one is all set to go.
  5. Roast up the garlic for your garlic mashed potatoes.
  6. Make your pumpkin pie—or the pie(s) of your choosing—cover, and refrigerate. Save yourself a few steps, and ask someone else to make the pie(s), or pick them up from your local bakery. Most pies can even be made a week ahead and frozen. Thaw at room temp starting on Wednesday.
  7. Make your sweet potatoes, cover, and refrigerate.
  8. Make your gravy. Gravy can be made up to five days in advance and refrigerated. Add the drippings after the turkey comes out of the oven. Your gravy will be just as delicious!


Today is the day! You may need to get started early, but if you have done the prep work already mentioned, it will be a snap.

  1. Preheat your oven to 350º.
  2. Sauté the onions and celery that you cut up yesterday. Add in sausage (if you’re using it for the stuffing), and set aside.
  3. Boil and drain your potatoes for the garlic mashed potatoes, and set aside.
  4. While your potatoes are boiling, assemble the cornbread stuffing. Bake the stuffing for 30–40 minutes. Remove and cover with foil to keep warm.
  5. Now, get that turkey in the oven! Use the following timetable:
Weight of BirdUnstuffed roasting timeTUFFED ROASTING TIME
10–18 lbs.3–3.5 hours3.75–4.5 hours
18–22 lbs.3.5–4 hours4.5–5 hours
22–24 lbs.4–4.5 hours5–5.5 hours
24–29 lbs.4–5.5 hours5.5–6.25 hours

How to Know when the Turkey is Done

Your turkey is done when the thermometer reads 165º in the thickest part of the breast and 180º in the thickest part of the leg. Remember to let the turkey rest at least 20 minutes before carving to let all the juices redistribute.

No matter how you choose to celebrate the holiday, I hope your day is full of joy, laughter, and good times with loved ones. Have a safe and Happy Thanksgiving!